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What In The World Is Going On In Denver?
Posted By Travis Heath On June 18, 2013 @ 10:40 am In NBA | No Comments
Much has been made recently about all of the coaches fired in the NBA. For some perspective, the three, four and five seeds in the Western Conference Playoffs have all dismissed their head coaches. This has folks in the coaching profession raising quite a ruckus, and if I were a coach, I’m sure I wouldn’t like it, either. If I were a longtime NBA head coach, I would probably like it even less. That said, just because the coaches don’t like it doesn’t necessarily make the trend a bad one.
It is always somewhat amusing to read or listen to former NBA head coaches comment on all of the firings. One I have heard quite a bit lately is Stan Van Gundy, who, by the way, is a good basketball coach and an outstanding commentator. I very much enjoy listening to him talk about the game. However, if he is asked a question about the state of the NBA coaching carousel what do you think he is going to say? Do you really expect a guy who has devoted his life to coaching and wants to get back into it say that it’s a good thing so many coaches have been fired?
In truth, to simply shoot from the hip and say it’s a bad thing, or a good one for that matter, that so many coaches have been fired is lazy analysis. As always, each firing should be taken on a case-by-case basis for some level of truth to be discovered. It’s not as though management teams across the NBA conspired to fire many top-level coaches. That becomes especially apparent when one acknowledges that these recently fired coaches are likely to be hired by some of the same teams who did the firing.
Living in Denver, the firing I have been closest to is that of George Karl. I have known Karl for about a decade and talked about nearly everything one could imagine with him. In short, I like him as a human being. However, there comes a time when a change can be mutually beneficial. The Nuggets and Karl had reached that time.
Winning 57 games in the regular season was a bit of fool’s gold. Karl overachieved with a good but not great team that was probably more of a 50-win team. That over-achievement in the regular season juxtaposed to what happened in the playoffs only further highlighted his postseason struggles.
Karl is quick to point out that NBA coaching is a job everyone thinks they can do. I think he is correct in that with Twitter and other forms of social media the “backseat driving” many fans and wannabe basketball savants or “analysts” do with the benefit of hindsight has reached a silly level. However, the fact that many people think they can do the job and are overly critical isn’t a reason for a coach to be retained.
As a coach Karl has become what he despises most in players: high maintenance. There’s no question he respects and loves the game of basketball. It’s also his prerogative to call the decision to fire him “stupid” or whatever else he wishes to. I wouldn’t expect him to like or agree with it. All that said, for Karl to imply that a coach entering the final year of his contract is problematic causes unneeded drama.
After his firing he stated that he was concerned about the uncertainty being in the final year of his deal would create for his assistant coaches who might venture elsewhere in the league in search of more security. While this seems like a valid concern, what if the tables were turned and a player was complaining about the uncertainty being in the final year of his contract created for his teammates? This is the very thing Karl would likely have taken exception with due to the fact that the player would have been putting himself above the team. Was Karl not doing the very same thing by trying to get some kind of extension, even if it wasn’t going to be the team picking up his entire three-year option with an entire season still left on his current deal? Does this sort of behavior foster the “teamness” Karl demands of his players?
Everyone has an angle after a coach gets fired and Karl is entitled to give his. Some of it makes sense. I can also understand where the team is coming from in looking to go in a different direction. It’s now up to Josh Kroenke to execute his vision, and whether or not that happens will take years to know for sure.
One myth that has been circulated is the Nuggets have a great roster thanks to Masai Ujiri. The Nuggets have a good roster, but one that, as I said all last season, was overrated by most. What Ujiri did was navigate the Carmelo Anthony trade exquisitely. He was able to take a team that looked destined to be buried for the next decade and acquired nice value in return for a superstar. What many people forget, though, is that the team’s best player, Ty Lawson, was acquired by the previous regime. Moreover, Karl deserves a ton of credit for coaching as well as he did during this tumultuous time. When the Anthony trade initially happened I remember thinking to myself (I couldn’t write it because I was working for an NBA team): “George is going to surprise a lot of people coaching this roster.” And surprise he did. If you give Karl a versatile team that can play fast, he’ll probably give you at least 50 wins. But what is considered a pleasant surprise in year one quickly becomes an expectation by year two.
It is possible that Karl has emerged from this whole experience in Denver over the last couple of seasons slightly underrated and Ujiri slightly overrated. Ujiri demonstrated that he could negotiate a good deal for a superstar who demanded a trade. This is one skill-set that is good for a GM to have in his back pocket, but it, in isolation, doesn’t make a good GM. The most difficult task for a GM is to take a good team and make it great. Most never achieve it. By leaving Denver for Toronto Ujiri not only made himself a lot of money, but he also bought himself time. Toronto has been bad for a very long time. Even a modest improvement (think somewhere near .500) will be celebrated in the short-term. Contrast that to Denver where, with everyone’s favorite scapegoat Karl now gone, it wouldn’t be long until critical eyes shifted to Ujiri.
Ujiri and his staff made good picks late in the first round, too, but none of these picks are franchise-changers. It’s one thing to make a good pick at a place in the draft where no one is expecting much. It’s an entirely different one to make a good pick in the lottery where the entire fan base is staring at you in eager anticipation of the player who will be selected.
It’s hard to find a better person in the NBA than Masai, and I’m happy he got paid. He made the right business decision for himself and played the situation perfectly. The Raptors also made the right move for their franchise, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the Nuggets made the wrong one.
There’s an old saying I’ve heard around the league for years and it goes something like this: “It’s not about the X’s and O’s, it’s about the Jims and the Joes.” Charles Barkley said this on air last year and it became more popular, but it’s something that I believe is true in all sports, most especially basketball. In basketball a single player can drastically alter the fortunes of a franchise. A good front office executive or head coach can help, but not in the same way a player can.
When forced to choose, I would say that a head coach has more impact on an NBA franchise than an executive. How much can a player personnel guy really do? He certainly cannot take over a game because he never gets on the court. If he is letting his head coach do his job, he also cannot impact the way in which the personnel is used by encouraging tactical adjustments. Although, longtime coaches will tell you that the idea of making “in-game adjustments” is highly overrated. I once had an NBA coach tell me that true adjustments have to be made on the practice court and that this notion that coaches can just adjust whatever they want in a timeout or at halftime is comical. Coaches have more direct control on game day, but both coaches and executives in the NBA are dependent on players like perhaps no other league.
The NBA has had eight teams win championships over the last three decades. Compare that to 19 in Major League Baseball, and remember there is no salary cap in baseball. Fact is, one player can take over a game in basketball like no single player can in any other team sport.
While no one in the Mile High City wants to hear it, without an elite player Denver was unlikely to win a title regardless of who is head coach or GM of the Nuggets next season. Denver will not be bad enough to get a top draft pick. As such, Josh Kroenke and new GM Tim Connelly will have to find some way to consolidate the good talent on the roster to acquire an elite player. If only an executive could will something to happen the way a great player can when he demands the ball in the fourth quarter of a close game.
Dr. Travis Heath is a psychologist in private practice and an assistant professor of psychology at MSU Denver. He has served as a team consultant in the NBA. He also co-hosts a show on Mile High Sports Radio weeknights from 6-8 p.m. You can follow him on Twitter @DrTravisHeath
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